Polly Vaughn

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"Polly Vaughn"

Polly Vaughn is an Irish folk-song (Roud 166, Laws O36).


A man, sometimes called Johnny Randle, goes out hunting for birds. Usually this is described as being in the evening or by moonlight in the rain. He sees something white in the bushes. Thinking this is a swan, he shoots. To his horror he discovers he has killed his true love, Polly Vaughn, sheltering from the rain. Returning home, he reports his mistake to his uncle and is advised not to run away. He should stay and tell the court that it was an honest mistake. The night before Polly's funeral, her ghost appears to confirm his version of the events.

The narrator imagines all the women of the county standing in a line, with Polly shining out among them as a "fountain of snow". Since the fairest girl in the county has died the girls are said to be glad of her death. In some versions there is no scene of guilty confession and no ghost.[1]


We are not told of the outcome of the trial. Is he found guilty of murder or not? Would he be guilty of poaching? The emphasis on Polly's fair skin, and the reaction of all the girls of the county has led most commentators to suggest that there is a supernatural element.

Polly wears a white apron, and has a name which usually sounds like "Mailí Bhán". In Irish Gaelic, this translates as "Fair Mary".

Baring-Gould commented that there is some similarity to Celtic legends about "The Swan Maidens". (see Swan Maiden). Anne Gilchrist in the Journal of the Folksong Society (number 26) points to many tales about women turning into swans. There is a fairy tale called "An Cailin" (The Fair Girl). A version of this story was recorded as "Cailín na Gruaige Báine" on the album Aoife by Moya Brennan. Roy Palmer recalls the story of the death of Procris in classical antiquity. In Ovid's collection of stories "Metamorphoses" Nephele throws a javelin at his sweetheart, and kills her while hunting. This interpretation might be called the "Romantic Celtic" version, and has been embraced by Shirley Collins and others.

A more mundane interpretation is that the invention of the rifle inevitably led to an increase in accidents while hunting. If this song had really been an echo of ancient mythology we would expect to find versions in Scotland and indeed throughout Europe. With the exception of one version in Scotland, the song has been found only in England, Ireland, USA, Australia and Canada. Moreover, there are no versions known before 1806 [there are number of versions from 1765 to 1806]. We would have expected earlier versions or fragments. This down-to-earth interpretation of the song is rare.

Hugh Shields suggested that the story might be based on a real event in Kilwarlin, co. Down.[1] The song is discussed in "EDS" (English Dance and song) Autumn 2006 edition.

Historical background[edit]

At the end of the eighteenth century and the start of the nineteenth century there was an increase in the use of rifles among hunters, as they became cheaper to manufacture.[1]

The absence of any trial in the song suggests that the sympathies of the hearers were with the hunter. Swan is not a particularly tasty bird, and most hunters would have preferred to shoot deer. There are versions of this song called "This Shooting of his Dear", where Polly is killed in mistake for a deer. There is obviously a play on words with the word "Deer/Dear". [Not a play on words; [2]]

Cultural relationships[edit]

The idea that someone who accidentally killed someone should not run away shows a certain confidence in the judicial system. The song is a domestic tragedy, and has no elements of class conflict.

There is a slight tendency for the name "Molly" to be used more frequently in the Irish versions of the song, and for "Polly" to be used in the English versions.

Standard references[edit]

Most traditional songs involving tragic death are included among the Child ballads. The absence of this song from that list has puzzled several commentators, since Francis Child must surely have known about the song.[1]

It was published in Robert Jamieson's 'Popular Ballads and Songs from tradition, manuscripts and scarce editions', 1806. Jamieson writes about this song, "This is indeed a silly ditty, one of the very lowest description of vulgar English ballads which are sung about the streets in country towns and sold four or five for a halfpenny". Jamieson's opinion might have coloured Child's decision to exclude it.

Jamieson says that it also goes by the name "Lord Kenneth and Fair Ellinour" , but nobody else has used this name for the song. This sounds like a misinterpretation, since there is a Child Ballad (number 73) called "Lord Thomas and Fair Elleanor" which involves a man killing a fair woman, but without any of the motivation of hunting for a swan.

  • Roud 166
  • Laws O36
  • The website "irishtune" categorises this as tune number 590 "Molly Bán" Irishtune
  • In Francis O'Neill and James O'Neill's "O'Neill's Music of Ireland" it is tune number 1474
  • In Francis O'Neill and James O'Neill's "The Dance Music of Ireland. 1001 Gems" it is number 703.


Broadside printings of this song are known from:

  • Pitts (London) (between 1802 and 1819)
  • Disley (London)
  • Kendrew (York)
  • Kenedy (New York) 1884
  • Pearson (Manchester)
  • Haly (Cork)
  • J. F. Nugent & Co (Dublin) (between 1850 and 1899)

Textual variants[edit]

The song exists under the titles:

  • "Polly Vaughan"
  • "Polly Vaughn"
  • "Molly Bawn"
  • "Molly Ban"
  • "Molly Bender"
  • "Molly Bond"
  • "Molly Vaughan"
  • "Molly Van"
  • "Polly Von"
  • "The Shooting of His Dear"
  • "As Jimmie Went A-Hunting"
  • "The Fowler"
  • "An Cailin Bán" (instrumental version)
  • "Fair Haired Molly" (instrumental version)

Non-English variants[edit]

The Irish tune "An Cailín Bán" appears to have evolved separately from the English tune, and appears to be earlier.

Songs that refer to Polly Vaughn[edit]

"Polly Von" by Peter, Paul, and Mary "One Starry Night" by Black 47

A cover version of "Polly Von" by Peter, Paul and Mary is included on Chris de Burgh's 2008 Album "Footsteps", a collection of cover versions of some of his favourite songs.Chris de Burgh - Footsteps[3]


According to "The Fiddlers companion" website, the title "Molly Bawn" is an Anglicised corruption of the Gaelic "Mailí Bhán," or Fair Mary (Fairhaired Mary, White Haired Mary). The symbol of a bird to represent a departing spirit from a dead body is common in art, particularly in scenes of the death of Christ.

The idea of the spirit of a dead person returning to speak to the living is quite common in ballads. Examples include "The Unquiet Grave" and "Murder at the Red Barn".

The idea that a woman might transform herself into a swan is widely known from Tchaikovsky's ballet "Swan Lake". Again, death at the hands of a hunter is part of the story.


The name Bawn appears to be quite common in Irish literature. The Colleen Bawn is a melodramatic play by Dion Boucicault. "Molly Bawn,: A comedy drama in four acts" (1920) is by Marie Doran. There is also a song by Samuel Lover in the one-act opera "Il Paddy Whack in Italia" (1841) called "Molly Bawm". Margaret Wolfe Hungerford wrote a novel called Molly Bawn (1878). None of these stories concern women being shot in mistake for a swan.

The story is adapted and illustrated by Barry Moser in 1992 as the children's book, Polly Vaughn: A Traditional British Ballad, which is set in the Southern United States[4], and again as part of the 1998 children's book, Great Ghost Stories, complete with an afterword by Peter Glassman.[5]

Samuel Lover wrote tunes as well as novels and dramas. Ciaran Tourish recorded "Molly Bawn's Reel" but it is not connected with the song. This website: Reel suggests that Samuel Lover composed the tune.

In Canada there is company doing Whale and Puffin tours, called "Molly Bawn". There is a poem called "Polly Vaughn" in Les Barker's book "Alexander Greyhound Bell" It is presumably as parody of the song, as that is the sort of thing Les Barker does.



Television and movie references[edit]

There is a film made in 1916, called "Molly Bawn". It is set in Ireland in 1850. However it is not related to the song.


The earliest known version of the tune for the Irish version of the song, is earlier than the earliest printing of the words. Edward Bunting's "General Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland" appeared in 1796. He printed the Irish tune three times in his manuscripts, each time noting it was traditionally the first to by learned by beginning harpers. If this in turn really is derived from O’Carolan’s composition “Fairhaired Mary” then it must date back to 1738 or before.

Under the Irish title "An Cailín Bán" it is first mentioned in 1839 (The fair girl) as a tune rather than a song. The tune appears in "The Concertina and How to Play It" (1905) by Paul de Ville (as "Molly Bawn"), again implying it suitable for beginners to the instrument. This would suggest that the words were not married up with the Irish tune until sometime between 1840 and 1905.

The English tune is known from the time of Baring-Gould (c 1890).

In Atlantic Canada, particularly Newfoundland, a variation of the original song, titled "Molly Bawn" has been very popular through the years. This version depicts a man, reminiscing in sad despair, over the loss of his young bride many years ago. However, nowhere in the song is the manner of the girl's death mentioned.[6] [The Leach song, not Molly Bawn, is a version of Boating on Lough Ree by John Keegan Casey (1816-1849), From 'Amatory Poems'. ref Mudcat Discussion Forum]


As there are three distinct ways of performing the song/tune this section has been divided up.

Section 1 – Performed as a folk song

Album/Single Performer Year Variant Notes
"The Acoustic Recordings (1910–1911)" John McCormack 1911 "Molly Bawn" classic tenor
"Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music: Ireland" Seamus Ennis 1955 (rec 1949/51) "Molly Bawn" .
"The Shooting of His Dear" (single on HMV) A.L. Lloyd 1951 "The Shooting of His Dear" .
"The Voice of the People: Good People Take Warning" Bess Cronin 2012 (rec 1952) "Molly Bawn"
"Folk Songs of Britain, Vol 7" Harry Cox 1962 (rec 1953) "Polly" .
"Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music: England" A.L. Lloyd 1955 "Polly Vaughan" .
"The Maid From Ballingarry & Other songs From the Muscrai Tradition" John O'Connell 1999 (rec c1960) "Molly Ban" .
"Marine Folk songs" Louis Boutilier 1962 "As Jimmie Went A-Hunting" Not really a marine song
"Back Porch Bluegrass" The Dillards 1963 "Polly Vaughn" 1st USA version
"In The Wind" Peter Paul and Mary 1963 "Polly Von" Unusual spelling
"Hazards of Love" Anne Briggs 1964 "Polly Vaughan" Same as A.L. Lloyd version
"Sings at the Toronto Horseshoe Club" Mac Wiseman 1965/2001 "Molly Bawn" Newfoundland Version.
"Byker Hill" Martin Carthy 1967 "Fowler Jack" with Dave Swarbrick (fiddle) listed as "The Fowler"
"Ballads and Songs of the Upper Hudson Valley" Sarah Cleveland 1968 (rec 1966) "Molly Bawn" USa version
"Power of the True Love Knot" Shirley Collins 1968 "Polly Vaughan" Tune composed by Collins
"Mainly Norfolk" Peter Bellamy 1968 "The Shooting of His Dear" from Walter Pardon
"At It Again" The Dubliners 1968 "Molly Bawn" .
"The Voice of the People vol 3" Phoebe Smith 1998 (rec 1969) "Molly Vaughan" .
"The Voice of the People vol 6" Packie Manus Byrne 1998 (rec 1974) "Molly Bawn" .
"Folk Songs from Hampshire" Cheryl Jordan 1974 "Polly Vaughan" .
"Songs of a Donegal Man" Packie Byrne 1975 "Molly Bawn" .
"On Banks of Green willow" Tony Rose 1976 "Polly Vaughn" .
"Dark Ships in the Forest" John Roberts and Tony Barrand 1977 "Polly Vaughn" .
"You Can't Fool The Fat Man" Dave Burland 1979 "The Shooting of His Dear" .
"Step Outside" Oysterband 1986 "Molly Bond" .
"Them Stars" Margaret MacArthur 1996 "Polly Vaughn" .
"Voices – English Traditional Songs" Patti Reid 1997 "Fowler" .
"Racing Hearts" Al Petteway and Amy White 1999 "Polly Vaughn" .
"Black Mountains Revisited" Julie Murphy 1999 "Polly Vaughan" .
"Put a Bit of Powder on it, Father" Walter Pardon 2000 "Polly Vaughn" .
"Far in the Mountains" Dan Tate 2000 "Molly Van" Unusual spelling
"Down The Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions" The Chieftains with Alison Krauss 2002 "Molly Ban" .
"Over the Edge" Moher 2003 "Molly Ban" .
"Red colour Sun" Pauline Scanlon 2004 "Molly Ban" .
"The Hardy Sons of Dan" Maggie Murphy 2004 "Molly Bawn" .
"Song Links 2" Dave Fletcher and Bill Whaley 2005 "Polly Vaughn" .
"A Promise of Light" Jamie Anderson 2005 "Polly Vaughn" .
"No Earthly Man" Alasdair Roberts 2005 "Molly Bawn" .
"Day is Dawning" Sussie Nielsen 2005 "Molly Bawn" .
"Of Milkmaids and Architects" Martha Tilston 2006 "Polly Vaughan" .
"Stranded" Craig; Morgan; Robson 2006 "Polly Vaughan" .
"Freedom Fields" Seth Lakeman 2006 "The Setting of the Sun" Unusual title
"The Weeping Well" The Great Park 2007 "Polly Vaughan" .
"A Hundred Miles or More: A Collection" Alison Krauss 2007 "Molly Bán" .
"Night Visiting" Bella Hardy 2007 "Molly Vaughan" .
"Bring Me Home" Peggy Seeger 2008 "Molly Bond" .
"Footsteps" Chris de Burgh 2008 "Polly Von" Same version as Peter, Paul and Mary
"Is It The Sea?" Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Harem Scarem and Alex Neilson 2008 "Molly Bawn" Live album recording of a 2006 performance at Queens Hall, Edinburgh. Released in 2008.
"Wild Hog" The Furrow Collective 2016 "Polly Vaughn"

Section 2 – Performed as a classical music arrangement

Benjamin Britten wrote many arrangements of folksongs. "Folksong Arrangements – volume 6" contains "The Shooting of His Dear". Ernest John Moeran composed "Six Folk Songs from Norfolk" in 1923. The 5th song is "The Shooting of his Dear". According to Barry Marsh, the song became as basis for Moeran's Symphony in G minor.

Album/Single Performer Year Variant Notes
"Music For voice and guitar" Peter Pears and Julian Bream (1993,recorded 1964) "The Shooting of His Dear" The Britten version
"Britten: The Complete Folksong arrangements" Jamie MacDougall and Craig Lewis 1994 "The Shooting of His Dear" .
"Down by the Salley Gardens" Benjamin Luxon and David Willison 2001 "The Shooting of His Dear" .
"Scarborough Fair" James Griffett 2002 "The shooting of his dear" arr Britten
"The Fowler"(single) Christine Smallman + choir unknown The Fowler" (arranged by Moeran)

Section 3 – Performed as an instrumental

Album/Single Performer Year Variant Notes
"Traditional Music of Ireland" Joe Burke with Charlie Lennon c 1973 "Molly Bán" .
"All Around The Circle: 12 Instrumental Selections" The Stringbusters c. 1973 "Molly Von" Unusual Spelling. Instrumental rendition of the Newfoundland variant. Performed on a Traditional Irish-Style button accordion, accompanied by typical Country-Western instrumentation of that era (Electric Guitar, Drums, Steel Guitar, Electric Bass).
"Old Hag You Have Killed Me" The Bothy Band 1976 "Molly Ban" In the set called "Michael Gorman's"
"Traditional Music of Ireland" James Kelly, Paddy O'Brien & Daithi Sproule 1981 "Molly Bawn (White-Haired Molly)" .
"Carousel" Seamus McGuire, Manus McGuire and Daithi Sproule 1984 "An Cailin Bán" .
"A Whistle on the Wind" Joanie Madden 1994 "Molly Ban" .
"Under the Moon" Martin Hayes 1994 "Fair Haired Molly" Unusual title
"Traditional Music from the Legendary East Clare Fiddler" Paddy Canny 1997 "Molly Bawn" .
"The Wide World Over" The Chieftains 2002 "Little Molly" Unusual title
"Ragairne" Seamus Begley & Jim Murray 2002 "Cailin Ban" .
"Down the Line" Ciaran Tourish 2005 "Molly Bán" .
"Bakerswell" Bakerswell 2005 "Molly Ban" .
"Duck Soup" Duck Soup 2005 "Molly Bawn" .
"In Session" Eoin O'Neill 2006 "Molly Ban" .
"The House I Was Reared In" Christy McNamara 2007 "Molly Bán" .

Musical variants[edit]

Edward Madden wrote the words, and M. J. Fred Helf wrote the music to a song called "Colleen Bawn" in 1906. The second verse is as follows:

Colleen Bawn when I am gone I wonder will you miss me,
Don't be afraid some other maid Will fall in love and kiss me,
For if they do I'll think of you A waiting here and sighing,
I'll drop my gun and start to run, And home a flying.

The business about dropping his gun almost suggests the earlier ballad, but is otherwise unrelated. The song is about a soldier who longs to return to his Irish sweetheart.

In Canada a song called "Molly Bawn" has been captured by song-collector MacEdward Leach. MacEdward Leach. It has the line:

Oh, Molly Bawn, why leave me pining, All lonely, waiting here for you?

but makes no mention of any shooting. It is probably unrelated.

Other songs with the same tune[edit]

The air "Molly ban so Fair" (1905, Stanford/Petrie collection), is probably unrelated.

According to "The Fiddlers companion" website, there is a variant similar to O’Carolan’s composition “Fairhaired Mary.” (See Fiddlers companion)

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Karpeles, Maud. ed., "Cecil Sharp's Collection of English Folk Songs". (1974)
  • Lomax, Alan, ed. "The Folk Songs of North America in the English Language". (1960)



  1. ^ a b c d O'Connor, Jennifer (1986). "Canadian Journal for Traditional Music". The Irish Origins and Variations of the Ballad "Molly Brown". Canadian Journal for Traditional Music. Retrieved 6 November 2009.
  2. ^ See Cecil Sharp 1906 JFSS
  3. ^ http://cdeb.com/music/footsteps-3/
  4. ^ https://www.amazon.com/Polly-Vaughn-Traditional-British-Ballad/dp/0316585416/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1496867259&sr=8-1&keywords=Polly+Vaughn+Barry+Moser
  5. ^ https://www.amazon.com/Great-Ghost-Stories-Books-Wonder/dp/0688145876/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1496863202&sr=8-1&keywords=GREAT+GHOST+STORIES+BARRY+MOSer#reader_0688145876
  6. ^ https://www.mun.ca/folklore/leach/songs/NFLD1/1-10.htm

External links[edit]

Broadsheet sources are given here:

The ballad is discussed here:

The Irish tune is discussed here:

The lyrics are given here:

There is an mp3 version sung by Eula Maxfield Garrott, recorded in 1952 here:

Bob Dylan's version:

Paul de Ville's "The Concertina and How to Play It" containing Molly Bawn: